What's Your Story's Conflict Quotient?

Most everyone would agree that a good story starts with good conflict. This week, as I've been working on a newly-contracted (yea!) tale of romantic suspense, I've been giving a lot of thought to the fact that a truly dynamic opening--one strong enough to carry a whole novel--consists of not just a single conflict, but a layered raft of obstacles our intrepid (or not-so-intrepid) protagonist(s) must face. In the case of a dual-viewpoint (typically hero and heroine) romance, the author is doubly challenged by the necessity of setting up the all-important romantic conflict between the leads in addition to developing a workable external plot.

As I write my books' openings, I often have to go back and layer in different opportunities for conflict. You don't necessarily want to hit the reader over the head with all of them at once, but you do want to slip in hints of potential trouble on the horizon. And here's a radical thought: You don't have to actually have all of the secondary conflict threads nailed down in your mind (or synopsis) from the outset. Try throwing in a few intriguing clues and then trust you subconscious to come up with something awesome later. Most of the time, it will come through for you like a champ. (If not, this is one of those occasions brainstorming sessions with writing pals and margaritas were invented for!*)

Once you've written, edited, and back-filled by going back and layering in more good stuff your opening chapters--you will generally have to have written at least several chapters before you get to this point--I recommend looking back to your beginning and asking yourself if the following are in place:

1. An immediate, dynamic source of external conflict: This is the sea change that instigate's the lead character's journey, that immediately challenges him/her to act. Surprisingly, the first source of conflict encountered in the story is often just a prelude to the true story problem--a red herring, if you will, that misdirects the reader, then allows you to whack her over the head with a surprising, larger issue. For example, a harried single mom, upset about her boss making her late again, is rushing to pick up her child from school, feeling guilty about being the last parent to arrive (again), and vowing to do something about it, no matter what the consequences. Then, bam -- a cruel carjacker turns her whole world (and the book's plot) on its ear.

2. Character's internal conflict:
In the previous example, the protagonist's struggle between work/daily survival and her need to be a good mom hint at issues to be explored (and exploited) throughout the story. As he is introduced, the hero's thoughts, too, reveal that not all is right in his world, that he is dealing with internal conflicts related to his transition from the military to civilian world. These thoughts--no more than hints as to a redefining moment in his recent past, since this is part of the story that's still percolating on my mind's back burner--are quickly interrupted as the protagonists' two worlds intersect. Or violently collide, I should say, which brings us to the next point on my checklist.

3. Inter-character conflict: If you're writing a romance, there has to be some "repelling force" keeping these two characters from getting all too cozy all too quickly. It needs to be both strong and believable, seemingly an insurmountable issue, while (in the case of a romance) still allowing the reader to see through to--or at least get a tiny glimpse of--each character's core goodness/worthiness of love. To have the emotional depth and resonance for a truly first-class story, the issue separating the two protagonists must be sufficiently serious that it could never be resolved by something so simple as a twenty-minute conversation, so sitcom-style misunderstandings need not apply! Initially, however, the writer may very well begin with the characters' attraction or even slight irritation before leading to the reasons this relationship could never. Possibly. Work. (Even though the experienced romance reader knows it eventually will, it's the how of it that keeps her reading.)

For those of you not writing romance, inter-character conflict is still equally important to set up. If the members of team working together to solve a crime or commit a caper or work toward whatever story goal is necessitated by the plot all get along perfectly and are never challenged by each other's personalities, you'll have a flat, lifeless, and ultimately unrealistic story. Think about any workplace, a sports team, even a family working together to support a common goal. There are always going to be internal pressures. If there weren't, we wouldn't be human, after all. And we sure as heck would not be interesting.

Conflict may be only one of the elements you have to balance carefully in your story's opening, but it is certainly among the most crucial. Does anyone else have any tips, comments, or questions on the layering of conflict to share?

*Yes, I do realize I have (gasp) ended the sentence with a preposition to keep it from sounding stilted. If this troubles you, please apply additional margaritas until you get over it. You may be wrapped a little too tightly to allow any great plotting ideas to sneak in. There. I did it again. Just because (wait for it) I wanted to.


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